Mission-driven business owners add to city’s growing appeal

A new wave of retail and restaurant offerings in downtown Palm Springs is continuing the city’s transformation from a sometimes sleepy tourist town to a hip, year-round destination.

Businesses offering handcrafted cards and stationery, original jewelry, artisanal coffees, and even comfort food are among the hundreds of new businesses licensed by the city just this year. They join dozens of similar shops and eateries that have popped up in both the Downtown and Uptown districts this year, attracting both visitors and locals alike.

Many of the new business owners interviewed Monday said that not even the battle with COVID-19, which saw multiple retail stores and restaurants close throughout the country, could dissuade them from opening their doors. And once they did, most said they were not expecting what turned out to be rapid success.

“I fully expected crickets when I opened,” explained Angie Chua, who opened a brick-and-mortar store selling her Bobo Design Studios products in the Uptown Design District this month. “I’m so glad I opened now.”

Chua’s shop features her unique cards and stationery designs and those of other women of color and the LGBTQ+ community. She’s joined most days by Harriet, her wire-haired wiener dog, who serves as the store’s manager.

Like many new arrivals in Palm Springs, Chua said she and her husband were frequent visitors to the desert from the Bay Area and elected to stay after experiencing a lifestyle they couldn’t find in larger cities.

“As an artist, the vibe here is unique,” she said. “It was a no-brainer to live here.”

Chua credits much of the success of her business to the atmosphere created inside and outside Flannery Exchange. Where once stood a nondescript, abandoned bank at 750 North Palm Canyon Drive, Mike Flannery — who started both Acme House Company and Solterra Builders in Palm Springs — “upcycled” the building to provide a modern, open, flexible space housing retail shops, coworking offices, and meeting and event spaces.

Chua is joined on the first floor of the building by jewelry designer Adrienne Wiley, owner of Covet, Erika Flannery, owner of Café La Jefa, a Latin-influenced modern coffeehouse, and artist Shawn Savage.

Chua jokingly refers to the three female business owners as “the United Colors of Benetton,” a riff on advertising for the iconic clothing brand of the 1980s and ‘90s. Yes, all are women of color. But it’s the united aspect that creates something special in the building.

“More than anything, we wanted to bring people together,” said Erika Flannery, a Palm Springs resident for nearly two decades. “We’re trying to create a community.”

Added Wiley, who opened her shop in May: “We just all fit together so well.”

Blu Bryan outside the future home of his I Heart Mac & Cheese restaurant on South Indian Canyon Drive. (Photo by Brelinda )

One mile south, Blu Bryan is also driven by a mission to build community as he prepares to start construction on what should be the first I Heart Mac & Cheese restaurant to open in California at 190 South Indian Canyon Drive.

Being able to offer a unique twist on classic comfort food in the city is important. But it’s only part of the reason behind taking a risk on a food franchise in Palm Springs.

“Giving back to the community is a key component of my philosophy,” Bryan said in a news release last week. “I will work with local charities when hiring so as to have the greatest impact on the community that we will proudly serve.”

If he’s successful in Palm Springs, that community should include the entire Coachella Valley. Bryan said he hopes to employ dozens of workers at multiple locations. Many of his employees may not necessarily get opportunities at other businesses.

“I’m paying a living wage and offering full benefits,” Bryan said Monday outside the future home of his business. “I’m hoping to hire seniors, veterans, and people who might need a second chance.”


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